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ALICE SAFARI The coach shuddered over never-ending runnels and shoals of a fine, rust-red dust. Past splotches of spinifex, past acacia trees, past mulga. Podgy Desmond Smythe, scouting inquisitively, the solitary passenger still awake, peered through the creased, airing underwear dancing from the curtain runner. The youngster prodded the somnolent creature next to him, whose legs were trussed up against the reclining seat in front, her mouth gaping, the neck jerked scrawny by the judders of the outback trail. ‘Mum! Mum! Wake up!’ We’re passing an abo compound. I want to take a photo.’ ‘Oh, not now, Desmond Peter. We shall have plenty of time later. Besides, I doubt if I have a twenty cent piece on me.’ Her half-closed eyes could scarce believe the ramshackle tin humpies littering the gibber. ‘Look at that grizzly, old abo over there, Mum. He might only want ten cents. I’ll ask Keith to stop.’ ‘You’ll do no such thing! The captain has a rigid schedule to follow. Sit still and try to catch up on your sleep, darling.’ ‘Oh, pretty please.’ ‘Just pipe down.’ Afternoon slumbers were brusquely disturbed by the coach-captain, whose tobaccohusked voice rasped the microphone. ‘Folks, you’re s’posed to be admiring the bush, which must be difficult with the curtains closed. Maybe it don’t matter. The last time a train came through here Adam was rucking for Jerusalem. We’re now approaching the Alice Artorium, so I’ll tell you one of me little stories, shall I? This establishment

what you’re gonna visit was run for donkeys by that celebrated artist, Helmut Schneider. That is, right up until last November. You see, folks, one day he was painting his legendary boxing kangaroo, snow gums an’ all, when he dropped down dead. Caput! Funny thing was, a few days later, the roo snuffed it too. By the way, the daughter, Marie – you’ll probably squiz her there this arvo, a spunky, nineteen year old chick and I for one fancy me chances – well, she buried the old roo in the garden and resurrected a grave to commemorate its association with the artist. Now don’t tell me you haven’t all heard of Kanga Billy, the middleweight champion of the Red Centre?’ ‘Who?’/ ‘No, never!’/ ‘Pull the other one!’/ ‘Ah!’/ ‘Christ!’ ‘Anyhow, people, this is it. Please don’t dig up the roo’s bones cos you’ll pick up a fair few souvenirs at very competitive prices. What’s more, I don’t wanna have to scrape you off the electric fence. Fifteen minutes only, if you don’t mind, then we might knock over the Namatjiras today and kill two corellas with one stone.’ ‘Question, Keith!’ came a shout from Dale Corcoran, who sported dark glasses in spite of the tinted windows, possibly the reason why he practised the laying-on of hands whenever he defiled. ‘What’s up, mate?’ ‘This is a famous site for fossils. Can you tell us about those creatures that lived in the ooze when the Great Inland Sea covered a third of the continent?’ ‘In a word, no. Except I’ve got one or two on board.’ ‘Ah!’/ ‘Boo!’/ ‘Hiss!’/ ‘He’s a real scream, ain’t he?’/ ‘Thanks a million!’ ‘Question!’ ‘Now what? Here, you’re not a teacher, are you?’ ‘Not likely. Keith, what’s the story on Xavier Herbert?’

‘Beg yours?’ ‘Xavier Herbert. You know, one of Australia’s most famous writers. He used to live in the Northern Territory, didn’t he?’ ‘Look, do you mind, pal? This isn’t a ruddy exam. Some of us are trying to enjoy ourselves. Jee-zus, there’s always got to be one of them on board.’ Jack Fielding roused himself down the aisle flecked russet by dust and sprinkled with lolly wrappings, chip bags and cans rolling aimlessly. He would habitually reclaim a fortnight in May from Hobart’s long-lingering wet and the tedium of being a shipping clerk. Already into his late thirties, he knew that the wheel had fallen off his landcruiser of aspirations for a Surfers niche. Moodily, he shambled towards the Artorium. Ahead, Desmond was fractiously snapping off cactus needles and flicking them at Polly Sims’ varicose pins. That game senior cit was still rootling in her handbag for her teeth, benumbed by a nap that rounded off very nicely the platter of barramundi and French fries. Beyond an avenue of luminous white gums, the crenellated almond walls blanched under fire from the sun, whose fierce strokes glazed mauve cameos of the Macdonnells on elongated panes of shimmering glass. The Artorium promptly swallowed up these urban refugees into its honeyed catacombs. Trevor flipped his floppy yellow towelling hat on to a water-buffalo’s horn that graced the vestibule. ‘Well, we all have our hang-ups,’ the Aucklander quipped, before springing upwards like a basket-baller to retrieve it, only to cleave an obtrusive bougainvillea with retroactive leg. ‘Jeez, death in the afternoon in one swell foop! Campers one, Triffids nil!’ ‘Is that a Rex Battercake?’ enquired Polly, sniffing at the artist’s signature. Desmond was already plundering the longest, stoutest, colourfullest didgeridoo. Jack was contemplating the gouache sketches of Fighting Kanga Billy by Helmut Schneider. ‘What a divine tea towel!’ Mrs Smythe’s tweedy voice complemented her khaki

pantsuit. ‘Not Ayers Rock again, star of television, poster and divine tea towel!’ trumpeted Trevor from a display-stand behind her, where he was covertly testing the fragility of bark paintings. ‘Do you have any slides of the Springs?’ huffed Polly. ‘It will save my legs getting out of the bus to look at them.’ ‘There you go, Marie, thirty-two voracious culture-vultures, at twenty cents a noggin,’ Keith buzzed. Jack swung round, nettled at being treated as a prawn. A waif of a girl, slenderhipped beneath a lurid art deco smock, was studying the docket. ‘We’ll get these termites out of your hair, love, quicker than a prize bull up a cow,’ confided Keith. ‘This mob’s a pain in the proverbials. Half of ‘em couldn’t tell the difference between the Rock and Mount Connor.’ Jack had been gazing out through empty distance for so long that his jaded eyes now fell upon what resembled an apparition. ‘Thank you, Keith. We’ve already shot through seven busloads today.’ ‘My vehicle’s a coach, love, not a bus. I’ve got some self-respect, you know,’ he chuckled. ‘Excuse me,’ intervened Jack. ‘Are you the famous daughter?’ ‘Sherlock’s got it in one,’ Keith guffawed. Marie shied away. ‘Yeah, she’s a real beaut of an artiste, ain’t she? Look, love, I must have a smoke and put me feet up for ten minutes. I’ve been on the road since seven. I’ll bowl back in a jiffy to flush ‘em out. Leave you in peace stead o’ pieces.’ ‘Thanks a lot.’ Marie coloured with embarrassment. Or irritation.

‘It’s some ordeal then to have to put up with us tourists?’ asked Jack, whose sullen features had softened. He found himself floating on her lily-of-the-valley fragrance. Here was raw, untouched talent, a stunning good-looker, perhaps a bit green behind the ears. ‘You get the odd busload storm through like locusts, chomping into everything,’ she shrugged. ‘Specially the young silver-tails from the cities.’ Jack was anxious to keep the bit between his teeth; Marie was champing to escape the intrusion. ‘Just like your old man, eh? Dedicated, gifted and . . . something of a loner.’ ‘Hardly. Look, I don’t even know you.’ ‘We’re staying down at the caravan park and I was wondering . . . ‘ ‘Now that Daddy’s passed away, I’ve got my work cut out winding up the business and going off to art school. Now if you’ll excuse me . . . ‘ Jack turned to follow, but walked into a crocodile mobile banging from the ceiling. With no little desperation, he threw his next card. ‘I compose, you know.’ Suddenly, a vulgar, fruity monotone splurted from the forest of didgeridoos. ‘Put that thing down, Desmond Peter! You don’t know where it’s been!’ ‘Oh, but Mum, it’s only eighteen dollars.’ “Why pay through the nose for a piece of glorifed bamboo? The pattern’s fading already. Here, you may have one of these quaint, little boomerangs instead. They’re much more sensible.’ ‘Aw, come on, Mum.’ Jack nodded towards the whining muso. ‘Your favourite type of visitor?’

‘I’ve known worse.’ Marie began to build up his face with thick, punchy, horizontal brushstrokes into planes of potch, leaving the eye-slits hollow, ravaged by a vulturous sun. He was a miner back of Coober Pedy, raggedly metallic with a mole-like stoop, an excrescence. ‘Anyhow, as I was saying, I dabble a bit in music. As a matter of fact, I’m working on a piece for synthesizer and kitchen hardware.’ ‘Huh, clever. Indeterminate, eh?’ ‘Quite the contrary, I’ve nearly finished it. It’s a real treat, an honour, to meet up with a fellow artist out here, beyond the black stump.’ ‘Desmond Peter! Watch what you’re doing with that murderous spear! You’ve hooked Miss Sims’ crochet-work from her bag.’ ‘Dear, oh dear, what a to-do!’ seethed Polly through a spitting peppermint. ‘Why cantankerous kiddies are brought on bus tours, I really don’t know.’ ‘Mum, do they sell lamingtons here?’ ‘Look, I’ve just had a flash of inspiration,’ persisted Jack, with boyish eagerness. ‘We’re going to be stuck in Alice four days. Could I meet you some place to discuss music and art and the whole creative bug?’ He might have fallen into her bulbous, chestnut eyes, but it was the glare of sunlight that deceived him. ‘I wouldn’t trusht thish randy, old lecher with a paintbrush,’ slurred a voice over his shoulder. Trevor was now flaunting a T-shirt emblazoned with the motto ‘the greatest drinker in the Alice’. An hexagonal nipple shouted his conquest of Ayers Rock, another his patronage of the Redtrail Coach Company. ‘You can guesh the gentle art he’s obseshed with, can’t yoush? But look, that thing’sh even plugged in.’ ‘That mobile was the brainchild of this talented young lady.’ ‘Lishen, shmart-arse, bet you can’t tell me the fate of the Shabine sheilas.’ The pungency of his beery reek, stale sweat and woodsmoked shorts proved more

challenging. ‘They drowns themshelves in Foshters.’ To Jack’s consternation, Trevor clasped Marie’s arm and switched on an expression of melting sensitivity. ‘Would yoush care to come up and shee my etshings shome time?’ ‘Not interested.’ Marie averted her nose, as she brushed off Trevor’s paws. ‘Let her alone, you gross bastard!’ Jack poised to scuffle. The rank gargoyle was lifting his T-shirt with provocative deliberation, but it was his green/purple baboon mask that frightened Marie; she stretched his jawbone, bloated the cheeks, pared the receding forehead with a bold, deft stroke of pink. ‘Shpecially tattooed down in The Rocksh.’ The mask leered into one gaping crater of mouth. Marie recoiled. Less from her own vision than from the triumphantly exposed livid nude that writhed with luminous green snakes across his rolling belly. ‘You know, shweetheart, you should be in modlin. I could shwing shomethin’ for you,’ he winked. ‘Do yoush do inflatablesh?’ ‘You’re vile,’ said Jack.’ Just then a young trump in mottled denim shorts burst into the main gallery, his auburn locks bobbing against narrow shoulders. ‘Marie, what do you reckon on these?’ he flourished two picture-frames. ‘Item one: moulding is brushed aluminium. Item two: more ornate, plaster on wood.’ ‘Why, Max, am I pleased to see you! Yes, they’re fab. Make me half a dozen in aluminium for my miniatures of the Alice, there’s a dear.’ ‘What’s up? You’re shaking like a croc’s dinner.’ ‘Could you stick around for a while?’ ‘Curshes! Reshcued by the Home Guard in the lasht reel. Woe ish me! I am undone!’ With arms crossed over neon nipples, Trevor pirouetted on bare feet to flutter, then fall, behind a pillar.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ ‘We’re being invaded by some goons straight out of Daumier.’ Jack sidled away, eyes blurring across reddish-orange landscapes along the wall, until he was received into the adjoining ante-room. Mortified, he collapsed on to a wicker chair, burying face in hands. ‘Shit!’ ‘Had enough, mate?’ Keith offered in consolation, amid the throes of rounding up his tribe. ‘I’ve always maintained you could do this joint in a quarter of an hour.’ ‘You can say that again. Sentimental dross, that’s all it is. Who’d want to hang up a cheap scribbling of a scribble gum?’ ‘You know, old Schneider could dash off in less time than it took me to crush a bloody great python on the Arnhemland Track and get the whole damn coachful to hold it aloft for photos! Gawd, that was wicked fun! But we used to raffle off the old guy’s oils for the campers. Course, I’d always get one gratis. Take it back to the missus or flog it to a second-hand shop in Wagga. One of the lurks.’ A boomerang flitted through the archway, jolting Keith’s eternal cigarette on to the stalks of orange carpet. ‘What the . . . !’ A tousled tacker wheeled into the room and halted like a shying brumby. ‘Stupid, little beggar! What the hell are you playing at?’ ‘Desmond Peter, where are you? We have to go-o. Ooh-oo.’ ‘A love-sick dingbat?’ Keith croaked. ‘Oh, here you are, darling, with the captain. That’s all right then.’ ‘Just telling young Dezzie ‘ere that we ought to be getting back, Mrs S.’ Keith chortled deferentially, patting the bewildered lad on the head. Then bellowed through the Artorium: ‘Everybody out! Time’s up, folks! They’ve got another coachload outside.’ Jack wearily lifted himself up. Trevor padded over to drape an arm round. ‘A ver-ee nicsh Sheila. Tough she wash knocking it off elshwhere.’

‘Nick off, why don’t you!’ clipping the Kiwi in his spilling paunch with an elbow. ‘You disgust me!’ ‘Hey, forget it, old man! What shay we shelebrate our shtorming of the Alish wiv the lasht of my duty-free? You, Keify-boyo and the other pish-pots, a real bacchush orgy round the fire. Drink cookie under the treshles.’ ‘Jeez-us!’ ‘Okay, sho I’m the bum of the month. Wake up to yourshelf. Fifty yardsh up Ayersh Rock and yoush is chickening out down the handrail. Dangeroush air-currentsh, pig’sh arsh! Even whinged about the dunniesh at Victory Downsh. You should’ve coshied along with the pushy-footers in their posh motelsh.’ Keith was slouching impatiently by the coach door, tamping the baccy down on the roll of paper, as his crew spewed out with their booty into a blind of heat. Some, barely able to see over the top of their didgeridoos, boomerangs, plastic installations and bottled witchety grubs, scurried as best they could to capture the Artorium from every vantage-point. ‘Out of the road, everyone1’ yelled Dale, vigorously pawing the air sidestroke-style, Pentax slung like a bandolier. ‘Let’s go for it!’ ‘Get a hustle on, you snap-happy hunters!’ ordered the commander-in-chief. Back they filed, cowed into their second home. Jack plomped on to his buttock-mould, knees clamped by the cans that Trevor had crammed into the pouch. He breathed a sigh of relief that his neighbour had scuttled into the low-slung seat behind the driver’s, where he was last seen burrowing into Cookie’s plump corpse. This dormant fixture perpetually curled up between meals, though she did emerge with a vengeance in the evening, resembling a slab of suet under muslin. Even so, Trevor had smuggled out a purse of camel hide for her appreciation. Whereupon she flumped into his clutches. ‘Young man, really!’ chided Polly, perched behind to bask in the best of the air-

conditioning, smiting him with a folded newspaper smelling of orange peel. Keith swung up the steps, manoeuvred into his cockpit, cranked the door closed. ‘Anybody gone walkabout?’ ‘No!’ chorused the trippers, in mindless unison. ‘Thank Gawd for that!’ he growled, struggling for first gear. ‘Yiiis!’ shrieked Mrs Smythe, gavotting up the aisle, waving her Brownie. ‘My Desmond Peter!’ Groans were buried by the heavy reverberations of the idling engine. The door clunked open. Keith rose with a harrumph, muttering, ducked through a whorl of smoke, and tottered bow-legged down the steps. ‘There’s the little perisher!’ He gestured towards one of the ghost gums ornamenting the avenue, and there, back to the coach, the would-be artist was absorbed in carving his bleeding initials on the ashen trunk. ‘Come along, Desmond Peter!’ Mrs Smythe pleaded, open-armed. ‘Or you’ll get my boot where it hurts!’ barked Keith, who suddenly grinned at the indignant mother. Desmond clambered aboard like a neurotic monkey. Surfacing from Cookie’s necklaces of fat, Trevor led the chanting: ‘Fine him! Fine! Fine! Fine!’ ‘I wasn’t late, was I, Mum?’ Keith brought his baked walnut jowls down to Desmond’s button nose. ‘Twenty cents in the sin tin!’ And glowered. ‘Same as the rest of ‘em.’ The captain extended an open palm etched with grease and nicotine. There was no argument against such intimidation. Mrs Smythe went foraging in her purse yet again.

Appeased by this contribution and his insulation behind the wheel amid curlicues of his favourite perfume, Keith’s humour was convalescing. ‘Folks, what we’ll do now is make a wee stop’ – he exaggerated the last two words and easily won the desired smirks and snickers – ‘yes, a watering-hole where we can lug aboard the good stuff. Which reminds me. I know my coach is restroomed for your convenience, but I did wise you up in Port Augusta as to how mucky an operation it is to clean it out, like. It’s not a pretty sight, folks. Whoever snuck in there this morning should cough up fifty cents for the sin tin. Perhaps when I’m not looking. Any questions?’ ‘What if we get the trots again?’ volleyed Dale Corcoran. ‘Just ‘old on to yourself an’ she’ll be right. I have great faith in this bunch. Righto, then after we’ll pop into the Namatjira exhibition for a few minutes, poodle back into camp, where Cookie will stagger us with another one of her burnt offerings – nah, I didn’t really mean it, Cookie, scouts honour. You cook up some lovely grub for us to feed our faces. Then I’ll drive everyone back into Alice for a snort.’ ‘Yip, yip, yippee!’ howled Trevor. ‘And talking of tomorrow, which we weren’t, we’ll do what we call Standley’s Spasm and the vulgar Olgas in the arvo, and maybe I’ll get to take you out to Corroborree Rock.’ ‘Touch wood,’ mumbled Polly into her ‘Woman’s Weekly’. ‘It’s in the brochure, but you realize by now we can’t guarantee to squeeze everything in. If we do the Rock, don’t expect me to personally describe the initiation ceremonies, what with the ladies on board.’ ‘Aaah!’ Bleats of disappointment showered over him. ‘No, seriously, folks, these sacred rituals are a bit embarrassing and that. All rightee?’ ‘All rightee, Keith!’ they raggedly echoed.

‘Swarm o’ galahs,’ muttered the captain. In his mirror he was distracted by Desmond Smythe chirpily trampolining on the hillock of mattresses at the rear. ‘Gawd blimey! I’ll throttle ‘im before we’re through.’ He wrestled the wheel round mightily. ‘Now for those bloody Namatjiras.’

Michael Small 1973 published: The Sun-News Pictorial, January, 1974 Her Natural Life and Other Stories, Tamarillo, 1988 P O S T E D B Y MICH A EL A T 02:32 EMAIL THISBLOGTHIS!SHARE TO TWITTERSHARE TO FACEBOOK

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